Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: "Kraken" by Wendy Williams

This post, and all others on BrainBlog, are written by Anthony Risser for his blog BrainBlog. The appearance of this entry, and others, on different websites, framed under different websites, or not at the BrainBlog URL do not have my permission. All rights retained.

Wendy Williams
Kraken: The curious, exciting, and slightly disturbing science of squid
NY: Abrams Image (2011)
ISBN 978-0-8109-8465-3

My guess is that, unlike biology students, many psychology students exposed to their first courses in biopsychology and neuroscience have little idea about cephalopods and their role played in our knowledge about the nervous system and behavior. (Hint: You are likely to have found squid in your textbook, in that diagram which shows the recording of electrical activity from a generic single neuron and its axon.)

Wendy Williams’ new book, Kraken, is a curious book that gives credit to the cephalopods and to the scientists who respect them and learn from them. It is a brief book with a nicely moving narrative. It is accessible to a general audience. It introduces the reader to a community of scientists (professional and amateur) who search for and study squid, cuttlefish, and octopus. People like Julie Taylor and Bill Gilly who work with the Humboldt squid. People like Bruce Andersen who teach neurosurgeons how to remove the single giant axon of Loligo pealei in a manner that will allow it to function for several hours after its removal. The book’s photographs are notably lo-tech; it is easy to imagine the subjects of the pictures posing for (or trying to avoid) the author’s pocket cam.

Collections of Loligo pealei offered up their giant axons to allow Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley to appreciate the action potential and the movement of ions across the cell membrane. Nobel-award winning work that, though the author believes that cephalopods themselves deserve a Nobel for their overall contributions to medicine and science (not entirely tongue-in-cheek!).

Neuroscience is an important part of the story, but it certainly not the only part. Cephalopods have survived several mass extinctions on Earth and their story takes on many different elements. Simply advancing knowledge from mythology was an important part of cephalopod investigations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The so-called ‘Monsters of the Deep’ are still part of B-movie plots, but we thrill more in the 21st century to their bioluminescence (which has been translated into a methodology to study functioning neurons), their response to their environment, their problem-solving abilities, and rises and falls in their numbers. Returning to the nervous system and behavior, the final pages of the book are a fascinating look at the intelligence of cephalopods or, more clearly, how could one determine the "intelligence" of animals other than humans. There are volumes and volumes available about this issue, but the coverage here is succinct and creative.

In all, a charming book.

Ahoy! A lagniappe for the curious: Many of the topics portrayed in the book (and other things about cephalopods) are available by others who have posted videos on YouTube. Like any salty 19th century seafarer, just search for cephalopods.

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